Decision of the Complaints Committee 02821-18 Sivier v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Mike Sivier complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Journalist accused of anti-Semitism and ex Militant member among the far-left activists who have been let back into Labour after Corbynistas tightened their grip on the party”, published on 4 February 2018.
2. The article reported on “secret documents” seen by a different publication, which showed that the Labour Party had allowed “far left activists” back into the party. It said that the complainant was being given back his membership after being “expelled…over claims he had posted anti-Semitic abuse online”. The article said that the complainant “reportedly said it ‘may be entirely justified’ to say Tony Blair had been ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’”, and that he also “said he was ‘not pretending it was a big problem’ if Jews were omitted from a list of Holocaust survivors”. It went on to say that, according to the other publication, the complainant “claimed ‘I’m not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”.
3. The complainant
said that he had not been “expelled” from the Labour Party: he had been
suspended while an investigation was carried out into allegations that he had
posted material which might be interpreted as anti-Semitic - not for posting
“abuse”. He said that another commenter on his website had stated that a Labour
politician had said that Tony Blair was “unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish
advisers”. He said that, without further context, it was impossible to analyse
this claim; he had replied saying “I would point out that (without further
information) concerns that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced’ by a ‘cabal
of Jewish advisers’ may have been entirely justified”.
4. The complainant
said that the other comments reported had been distorted by being removed from
their context, and denied that they were anti-Semitic. A commenter on the
website had been listing incidents of anti-Semitism on the Left, and had
referred to a leaflet which he said omitted Jews from a list of Holocaust
survivors, and put the number of deaths from the Holocaust at thousands, rather
than millions. The complainant denied having said that he didn’t know whether
thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. Rather, in response to a
comment about the leaflet, he had said “I’m not going to comment on ‘thousands’
instead of ‘millions’ because I don’t know, but the Nazi holocaust involved
many other groups as well as Jews, and it seems likely that the SWP was simply
being ‘politically correct’”. He said he was referring to not knowing whether
the leaflet made this claim, rather than to not knowing the number of Jews who
died. He had gone on to say “Nobody has said anti-Semitism on the left doesn’t
exist…But it isn’t organised and is mostly the work of aberrant individuals”.
The commenter had then accused the complainant of “pretending that there isn’t
a problem”. The complainant had replied “I’m not pretending there isn’t a
problem, I’m just not pretending it’s a big problem”. His comment that he was
“not pretending it was a big problem” had been referring to the problem of
anti-Semitism on the Left in general, and not to the omission of Jews from the
5. The publication
denied that the use of the word “expelled” was significantly misleading; the
article did not suggest that the complainant had been permanently removed from
the party, as its entire premise was that he and others had been readmitted. It
nevertheless removed this word from the article and substituted the word
“suspended” in its place. It also denied that the term “abuse” was misleading
since the allegations related to the posting of content which might be
interpreted as anti-Semitic. In addition, the publication said that it had
accurately reported the complainant’s comments in relation to the “cabal of
6. The publication
said that the article was entirely accurate in reporting the complainant’s
other comments; the interpretation that had been made of the comments was
reasonable. It acknowledged that the complainant may have a different
interpretation of the comments, and offered to publish a footnote clarification
Since first publication Mr Sivier has contacted us and asked
us to point out that his refusal to comment on the issue of why the SWP flyer
referred to “thousands” rather than “millions” was a reference to the choice of
wording by the SWP on their flyer and not a reference to the number of victims
of the Holocaust. He also says that the reference to there not being a “big
problem” was directed to the general issue of anti-Semitism on the left and not
the specific issue of omitting Jews from the list of Holocaust survivors. Mr
Sivier denies making any comments that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and
we are happy to make his position clear.
It also offered to publish a standalone clarification on its website as follows:
An article on 4 February entitled “Journalist accused of anti-Semitism and an ex Militant member among the far-left activists who have been let back into Labour after Corbynistas tightened their grip on the party” reported on allegedly anti-Semitic comments made by mike Sivier. We now understand that Mr Sivier denies that these comments could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and we are happy make his position clear.
7. The complainant
denied that the article contained a reasonable interpretation of his comments.
In reference to the claim regarding the number of Holocaust victims, his
original comment had made clear, through the use of quotation marks, that he
was referring to the use of the words in the leaflet, rather than to his own
beliefs. The commenter had said that the complainant was “defending the
indefensible, and pretending that there isn’t a problem” with anti-Semitism on
the Left, and it was in response to this that he had said “I’m not pretending
there isn’t a problem, though. I’m simply not pretending it’s a big problem”.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate,
misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not
supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Committee noted that the article had reported claims about the complainant which had previously been published elsewhere, and had presented them in this light. However, the comments which the article reported on were publicly available, and the publication was responsible for reporting them accurately.
9. The article had
originally stated that the complainant had been “expelled” by the party. The
Committee acknowledged that, read alone, this might suggest that he had been
permanently barred. However, the sub-headline indicated that he had been
‘suspended’, and the article made clear that he was eligible to be readmitted;
indeed, this was the premise of the article. In these circumstances, stating
that he had been “expelled” was not significantly misleading, and there was no
failure to take care over this claim. Similarly, it was not misleading for the
article to say that the complainant had been expelled “over claims” of “abuse”:
the suspension had related to allegations of anti-Semitic comments made online,
which the publication was entitled to characterise as “abuse” when the basis
for this was made clear. In addition, the newspaper had not stated as fact that
he had in fact engaged in “abuse”, but had stated that he was suspended “over
claims” of such behaviour. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
10. In response to a commenter referring to comments by a
Labour politician stating that Tony Blair was “unduly influenced by a cabal of
Jewish advisers”, the complainant had written “(without further information)
concerns that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced’ by ‘a cabal of Jewish
advisors’ may have been entirely justified.” This comment was accurately
reported by the publication, and it was entitled to rely on the words the
complainant had used. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The complainant had not directly said that he was “’not
going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the
Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. There was no reference in the discussion
surrounding the leaflet to “whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the
Holocaust”, because the leaflet had explicitly not referred to Jews among the
victims of the Holocaust. The publication may have inferred this meaning from
the complainant’s comments, but it reported this as something he had said. The
article did not make clear that it was reporting the publication’s
interpretation of the complainant’s comments; they were presented as direct
quotations. Because the comment thread was publicly available, this represented
a failure to take care, in breach of Clause 1(i). The article gave the
impression that the complainant had said something which he had not, on a
subject liable to cause widespread offence, a clarification was required to
avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
12. As set out above, the complainant had suggested that
omitting Jews from a list of Holocaust survivors in a leaflet may have been for
“’politically correct’” reasons. However, he had not explicitly stated that
omitting Jews from the list was “not a big problem”, as the article said
Claiming that the complainant had said this, when his comments were publicly
available, this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the
article, in breach of Clause 1(i). Because the article gave the misleading
impression that the complainant had made a claim that he had not made, it
required clarification to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
13. The footnote clarification addressed the two
inaccuracies identified in the article, and made clear the complainant’s
position with respect to these two points. It was therefore sufficient to
address the inaccuracy and avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The Committee
welcomed the offer of a standalone clarification; however, the footnote
correction was sufficient to address the inaccuracies in the article, and the
Committee did not require a standalone correction in this instance.
14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial action required
15. The publication had offered a footnote clarification
which set out the complainant’s position in relation to his comments. This
clarification addressed the inaccuracies within the article, and was sufficient
to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). It should now be published.
Date complaint received: 04/04/2018
Date decision issued: 29/06/2018Back to ruling listing